- The United Food and Workers Commercial Union (UFWC) is suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to overturn the new Modernization of Swine Slaughter Inspection rule that went into effect Oct. 1. In the suit, plaintiffs argue it will jeopardize the health consumers and the safety of factory workers.
- The rule ends the cap on the speed of processing lines and reduces the number of government health and safety inspectors by 40% through an online inspection system that instead allows plant employees to monitor compliance.
- These changes would allow large plants to increase production by 12.5% annually and result in an average annual savings of $3.78 million, according to USDA data reported by Bloomberg.
After 15 years of piloting this new approach to safety inspections and processing speeds at five plants across the country, the USDA has decided to roll out this modernized approach to pig processing to the country's 612 pork plants. The first wave arrived earlier this year when 40 of the country’s plants were allowed to operate under this new system which impacted 90% of U.S. pork production, The Washington Post reported in April.
Almost immediately, investigations began to take place as to whether the new inspection system was based on flawed data. Pat Basu, the chief veterinarian with the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service from 2016 to 2018, would not back the new pork system because of concerns about safety for consumers and livestock, the Post said.
The USDA Inspector General’s office had previously found that three of the five plants from the original trial had a number of health and safety violations, although later reports were unable to draw any conclusions as to causality, the Post found. At the same time, the USDA showed that injury rates between 2002 and 2010 were lower at pilot program plants using the new inspection process than in traditional ones using slower line speeds.
In the latest investigation from this summer, it appears that no incongruities between the data used and conclusions were found. After following the designated public process, the USDA published its final rule on the changes in pork plant processing on Sept. 17.
Still, it is a valid concern that without specific, mandatory training criteria, it's possible some plant owners would shirk this aspect and allow insufficiently trained workers to do inspections. That could lead to more contamination of meat that could change the balance of why meat recalls occur in the first place. In 2018, there were an estimated 25 recalls of pork products, according to USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. Nearly all were due to the presence of extraneous material or undeclared allergens.
With the average food recall costing about $10 million, an increase in frequency could undermine any gains that production facilities, the big winners in this equation, earn with this new rule that allows for increased processing speeds.
The impetus is on pork processors to ensure that quicker speeds and fewer government inspectors doesn't hurt the safety of the food supply. If it does, these businesses could soon find their increased responsibility revoked or they could be forced to spend more money to hire third-party inspectors. The lawsuit, citing government occupational safety data, claims that meatpacking workers suffer injuries and and illnesses more than twice as often as employees in all private businesses, according to Bloomberg.
It is unlikely that this lawsuit by the UFWC will go anywhere. Already, the USDA has 15 years of data on its side to prove that there are limited ill effects that result from decreased oversight and increased production. In addition, these laws are similar to those passed a few years ago that mandates that "poultry facilities will be required to perform their own microbiological testing” and “sort their own product for quality defects before presenting it to FSIS inspectors." The Trump administration is reportedly planning to expand similar inspection changes for increased speed and modernized health and safety testing to beef processing facilities.